Reed said missing his graduation didn’t compare to the sacrifices the original Freedom Riders made when they challenged the South's segregation laws: quitting jobs, dropping out of college and, ultimately, risking their lives.
“What the Freedom Rides did 50 years ago paved the way for what I have today as an African American,” said Reed, a 21-year-old business administration major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Reed was one of 40 college students chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants to join a handful of the original Freedom Riders on an eight-day journey from Washington, D.C., through the South.
Congress of Racial Equality head James Farmer, six other black people and six white people participated in the first Freedom Ride which left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. The trip was to test whether Southern states were implementing Boynton v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars segregation in public-transportation facilities.
The trip carried riders through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The group faced violent attacks in the Deep South from white mobs who opposed integration. One of the buses was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and the riders were beaten. A Ku Klux Klan mob attack in Birmingham, Ala., drew national headlines and international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.
The first rides ended with a federally escorted flight to New Orleans.
As news of the violence spread, hundreds joined the Freedom Rides. Hundreds were jailed that summer in Jackson, Miss., and transferred to the infamous Parchman state penitentiary after the local jail ran out of space. The demonstrations became a defining point in U.S. civil rights history.
After events in Washington, the bus headed south on Sunday. Stops in a number of cities include those where the 1961 riders were harassed, physically attacked and arrested. The students plan to use social media to share their experiences during the trip which will end Monday in New Orleans.
Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland plans to share her scrapbook from 1961 with student riders on the bus trip. The 69-year-old Arlington, Va., resident said she wants to pass on her ideas to the college students because her generation is “fading into a sunset, so to speak.'”
Mulholland joined one of the 60 demonstrations after a colleague was arrested on the initial ride. She was arrested June 8, 1961, in Jackson, Miss., and spent about two weeks in the local jail, then the rest of the summer at Parchman.
Prison warden Fred Jones wrote a letter to Mulholland's mother telling her that she could send medicine to her daughter. He also made a point to criticize her parenting skills.
“What I cannot understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor white girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and white hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence," Jones wrote.
The letter appears in photojournalist Eric Etheridge's book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders.
Glenda Gaither Davis, a Freedom Rider who left college in 1961 to join the protests, said the young people need to know about past struggles so they can solve current and future problems.
“I don't know what it is in our society; we don't have a lot of regard for their past," said the 68-year-old Davis, an Atlanta resident who plans to meet the group when the bus arrives in her city. “They must have an appreciation of history to become a part of the force that's moving ahead.”
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